What we really talk about when we talk about food insecurity
It's difficult to talk about N.L.'s ability to feed itself without tackling issues like poverty
Food insecurity often comes up in Newfoundland and Labrador, and rightly so.
After all, we have the lowest number of farms of any province, the poorest soil quality (and the most rocks), our food is mainly imported, and a whopping 13.4 per cent of households are food insecure.
But what does food insecurity mean? And how can we combat it effectively?
These were among the looming questions that the Food Producers Forum, a non-profit and information hub, attempted to address at its weekend-long Regeneration Conference.
Held virtually last week, food leaders in Newfoundland and Labrador gathered to discuss topics like soil quality, harvesting wild food, food waste, and community gardens.
Sessions on justice and access seemed especially important, and speakers emphasized that food insecurity doesn't exist in a vacuum; instead, it grows alongside issues like income inequality and low wages.
Josh Smee, chief executive officer of Food First N.L., spoke several times about moving beyond Band-Aid solutions.
Food banks … weren't supposed to be permanent and they can't solve the problem.- Josh Smee
"Food insecurity is usually a symptom of poverty," he said. "There are exceptions, but we're usually talking about poverty when we talk about food insecurity."
So what is a Band-Aid solution to food insecurity? Smee says food banks and meal programs are prime examples of short-term solutions.
"Food banks didn't exist in Newfoundland and Labrador until the recession hit in the '80s," he said. "They weren't supposed to be permanent and they can't solve the problem."
Basic income a theme of weekend-long conference
Instead, Smee suggests that raising the minimum wage, adjusting income support for inflation, and considering universal basic income are actions that could address food insecurity at its root.
"Governments are squeamish about giving lower-income people money," said Smee. "During the pandemic, plenty of folks needed help, and the federal government decided $2,000 a month was the lowest amount of income needed. That number is much higher than folks on income support or disability currently receive, and that needs to change."
Raising the minimum wage, Smee says, is another way to combat food insecurity effectively.
"The last time a local 'living wage' was calculated was for St. John's in 2018, and at that point, it landed at $18.85 an hour — that's probably low, now, but a good starting point."
Newfoundland and Labrador's minimum wage is currently $13.20 per hour.
Universal basic income is an idea that gained traction in Newfoundland and Labrador when Labrador West MHA Jordan Brown tabled a motion to examine basic income in November 2020.
The topic popped up throughout the Regeneration conference weekend. UBI can take many forms, but it's essentially a government-run program in which every adult citizen receives a set amount of money regularly.
Smee points out that people generally do better when they know there is a safety net. "There's this myth that lower-income people will exploit the system or 'socially loaf,' which doesn't happen."
To the contrary, he said, research shows that with UBI models, people "take the time [to] go back to school, find better-paying employment and enjoy a higher quality of life."
'We have a broken food system'
Dan Rubin, one of the organizers of the Regeneration conference and chairperson of the Food Producers Forum, says the meeting highlighted a lot of inequalities in how and what we eat.
"My main takeaway is that we have a broken food system," he said.
"We're stuck in the idea that food is a commodity. We need to return to something we used to have, which is growing more of our food closer to where it's consumed. We need our communities to lean into the old traditions of sharing and growing, coupled with new technologies and diverse crops."
Although government and community action are needed to address food insecurity, there are things people can do on an individual level.
Giving and advocacy are both approaches Smee recommends.
"As long as the system of food charity exists, providing support means something, but our engagement with food insecurity starts with donating something. It shouldn't stop there," he said.
"Every time you donate, I'd encourage you to reach out to a decision-maker and push them on what they're doing to remove the need for food charity."
Rubin says the best thing an individual can do to fight insecurity is connected with the community.
"I think it's easy for individuals to get trapped in a broken food cycle, but you can build something when you reach out to your community. That might be a community garden, or it might be fighting policy with a collective."
New techniques for growing vegetables
So what's next for the Food Producers Forum?
Rubin, who said the conference "was a watershed moment," said nine people are teaming up to carry recommendations forward.
As an example, there's the earth-sheltered greenhouse design, which is equal parts root cellar and greenhouse. Financial support from the Office of Public Engagement at Memorial University will help get six of these structures built in Carbonear, King's Point, the Codroy Valley, Gambo, Port Blandford and Norris Point.
Built into hillsides, the soil in an earth-sheltered greenhouse insulates and warms the space in winter and keeps it cool in the summer. It's a way to future-proof growing and ensures that food production can happen in all seasons. A test version is being constructed at the O'Brien Farm in St. John's, where it will be used for training.
"We're excited to see these community greenhouses go up," said Rubin. "We're also thrilled that a portion of the food grown in each community will be free for residents. The food grown in the Codroy Valley greenhouse will entirely be given away."
With the Regeneration conference completed, Food First N.L. is also staring down a busy season.
Over the next six months, Smee said, the organization is putting together a provincewide series of conversations that fall under the heading "rethinking food charity."
The group is also kicking off a two-year project "focused on engaging food retailers in this conversation and figuring out what we can do to support food access for low-income [consumers] through retail settings. We need to make food in rural settings more accessible."
From the Ground Up
CBC Newfoundland and Labrador has been exploring food insecurity, self-sufficiency and other issues through our series From the Ground Up. Click this link to read more stories and see videos we've produced.